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Waverly High School yearbook

Waverly High School officials are having pages in the school yearbook reprinted because of photos they say memorialize somebody who has died.

The Waverly High School yearbook is the latest point of controversy over a school policy that prohibits memorializing students or staff who have died.

This time, though, the person administrators fear is being memorialized isn’t a student or staff member, but the son of teacher Erin Konecky who died 96 minutes after his birth.

Students wrote a yearbook story about how Konecky, the journalism teacher who oversees the yearbook, was named Mother of the Year for her work to make sure parents in similar situations get condolence cards from the governor, not congratulatory cards like she did because staff didn’t know what had happened.

The story — something Konecky’s students wrote as a surprise for her — ran with photos of Konecky and her family, including one with the baby, Spencer, before he died, a photo of the card she designed to send to other parents, and one of the Konecky family praying in the hospital room.

Superintendent Cory Worrell said even though the story isn’t about a deceased student or staff member, the spirit of the policy is that the district shouldn’t memorialize those who have died.

And even though the point of the story was the work of Konecky, the pictures could portray a different impression, he said.

“When you combine it with pictures, it could give the impression it was a memorial."

Administrators won't change the article, he said, but they will replace three photos with those that focus more on Konecky and less on her child.

He also stressed that the Mother of the Year story wasn’t the only reason distribution of the yearbook was being delayed.

Officials will also reprint pages to change a caption about the school musical that used offensive language, and they'll add pictures of a couple of seniors that hadn’t been included.

Valerie Gerlach, who was yearbook editor last year and is now a student at Concordia University, said she was surprised by the concerns and doesn’t feel the story or photos violated school policy.

“My stance was I really believed my book was done correctly,” she said. “And it was done with a lot of heart.”

She said she’d been on the yearbook staff for four years and editor for two and while it’s not unusual for administrators to review the book and talk about how it might be improved the following year, they’ve never wanted to reprint pages.

Konecky declined comment for this story.

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The book was supposed to be distributed Friday at the annual Booster Bash, an event graduated seniors typically return for, in part to get their yearbooks. Officials hope to have them finished by the end of September.

Waverly isn’t the only school with policies prohibiting memorials to deceased staff or students — and those policies have caused controversy in recent years at Lincoln Public Schools, Waverly and Norris.

Most often the controversies arise when family or friends who want to recognize a dead student at graduation or during a school performance. Two years ago, Irving Middle School administrators reprinted a yearbook eliminating a memorial to a student who had died.

School officials say the policies exist to keep the focus on the purpose of school events or publications, to avoid glorifying death and to be consistent.

But Gerlach and Shiloh Roth, a Waverly junior who co-wrote the story about Konecky and is yearbook editor this year, said it's not fair to apply the policy to others outside staff and students when the policy doesn't specifically say that.

In any case, they said, the story wasn’t memorializing the baby, it was about honors his mom had received for her work.

Roth and Gerlach contacted someone with the Student Press Law Center to discuss possible violations of their First Amendment rights.

“I don’t get why it’s a problem,” Roth said. “I believe they’re violating our rights because they’re not letting us have a say.”

Gerlach said everything in the yearbook came as a result of class discussions about important parts of the school year.

The offending caption on a story about the school musical — a satire called "Urinetown"— was "Piss Perfect," a play on the movie title "Pitch Perfect," Gerlach said.

Worrell said he doesn’t believe administrators have violated students’ rights. He wanted to remove inappropriate language, the appearance of a memorial and to add missing senior pictures. 

“School officials can still make determinations on what the content is in school-based newspapers and yearbooks,” he said. “We’re not trying to stomp on anyone’s First Amendment rights, we’re trying to put out a yearbook reflective of our school and our school district.”

In the future, he said, administrators will play a bigger role in reviewing what’s in the yearbook.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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